Millennial Zeitgeist Novels

I like to read “period” novels whenever I teach a U.S. history survey course. I unshelf  Howells and Twain when I teach the Gilded Age, dust off Steinbeck for the 1930s, and dive into Angelou and Walker to get an African-American perspective. With the semester winding down, I’ve been reading about the 1990s.

Recent novels are tricky. Books only evolve from “noteworthy” to “classic” in retrospect; lots of heralded works come off as shopworn or silly a decade later. Even good books take on meanings that eluded the first batch of readers. The latter has certainly happened to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) and The Corrections (2001). Both were received in their initial runs­ as if they were sociology as well as literature. So they were, but now each also seems an indictment of Baby Boomers and Generation X excesses. Such generational labels are, of course, media inventions. As a historian, I don’t hold much stock in generational interpretations of the past, so I’ll just call these zeitgeist novels.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was and is a genre-defying work that obliterates the line between fiction and autobiography. Its narrator, Dave Eggers, is both author and principal character. It tells of the travails of the Eggers clan. Paterfamilias John, a nasty drunk, died in 1991, followed the next year by the cancer death of the family rock: Heidi. Her death threw the Eggers children upon their own devices. Eldest son William was already living an independent life in Los Angeles, and soon the remaining children–Beth, Dave, and Christopher–depart Illinois for San Francisco. Challenges arose immediately, as youngest child, “Toph,” was just nine and his primary caretakers were Beth (24) and Dave (22). Both cared deeply for Toph, but neither was prepared to be a parent. (Beth played a larger role than assigned in the book, but she had demons of her own and committed suicide in 2001.)

Anyone who has been to San Francisco knows that it’s a tough town in which to be poor. Dave and Toph eek out a living from their inheritance, Social Security, and whatever work Dave can drum up, but he’s more of a slacker/hipster-wannabe than breadwinner. The book purports to recount his on-the-job-training lessons in responsibility and parenthood, but in retrospect it reads like Eggers’ thinly veiled anger at being robbed of his adolescence. He and Toph trash one cheap rental after  another, as neither is very good at adult basics such as wiping up messes, taking out the garbage, or housekeeping. Dave lands a job, but with a magazine that never made a dime; his real talents include prowess at tossing Frisbees and imagining himself in the sack with sexologist Sari Locker.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius remains a very good read, though a title meant to be ironic now feels solipsistic. Like works such as Running with Scissors, it  has a “look at me” quality whose true irony lies in how badly Gen X mangled attempts to emulate what it lampooned. That is to say, for all the Gen X contempt for Baby Boomers, many of them tried to become hippies and simply weren’t very good at it. Blame the “Dream,” or blame Gen X-fueled MTV, hipster mags, and reality TV. Or, as I prefer to do, read Eggers to gain insight into what confused twenty-somethings were thinking in the 1990s.

Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award-winning The Corrections is the superior novel. Today it seems the ultimate pre-apocalyptic novel as it ends with the Stock Market “correction” of 1999, and was published just months before 9/11/01. The novel tracks the highly dysfunctional Lambert family. Parents Alfred and Enid still live in the prototypical Midwestern town of St. Jude, but their adult children have bolted to the East. Alfred is a retired railroad engineer/inventor who, in his prime, was a tyrant. Parkinson’s and advancing dementia have transformed him from being difficult to being impossible. Enid, his wife of 50 years, realizes time is short, tries to rally Alfred for a few last hurrahs, and harbors the dream of a final family Christmas in St. Jude.

Good luck with that! The kids are to busy making of hash of their lives. Eldest son Gary is a Philadelphia banker obsessed with the Stock Market, all things material, and few things emotional. He has a postcard family, but Gary is either bullied by his equally selfish wife, or is clinically depressed–depending on whose point of view you believe. Middle child Chip, the family intellectual, is a college professor hurtling toward self-destruction by violating the school’s sexual conduct code that he helped write. That avenue leads him to New York, where he fails as a playwright, and to post-Cold War Lithuania, where he falls in with oligarchs. Diane escapes a bad marriage and reinvents herself as a celebrity chef, only to jeopardize it all by having simultaneous affairs with her boss and his wife. Different problems, but each is too mired in imagine a warm-and-fuzzy Christmas in St. Jude.

Franzen’s novel crosses generations—Depression era parents, a Baby Boomer-turned Yuppie eldest son, an idealist-gone-egoist “tweener” middle child, and a Gen X youngest daughter. Each is a metaphor for the hope and greed of the Clinton years. The first brick fell when the dot.com bubble popped in 1999, Nasdaq lost 78% of its value, and its 457 IPOs shrank to just 76 in 18 months. Looming on the horizon: the falling masonry of September 11. Looking back now, The Corrections feels like the warning siren in advance of the tornado.  Rob Weir


Ernest and Celestine a Treat for Kids and Grown-Ups

ERNEST and CELESTINE (2012 in France; 2014 USA)
Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, et. al.
La Patri Productions, 80 minutes, G (Dubbed in English)
* * * *
I don’t recall which of my friends recommended the delightful animated film Ernest and Celestine, but if it was anyone reading this review, thank you, thank you, thank you! It is sweet, sentimental, and cute–in all the good ways.

As animated films often do, this one builds an alternative world, one in which bears live above ground and mice below the surface. As everyone knows, bears and mice hate each other—even if they don’t know why. That’s just the way it is. It would take two special beings to break through the walls of prejudice, which is what happens. Ernest is a jazz musician, but he’s really a slacker bear who mooches off others and is too scatter-brained and disorganized to do anything as mundane as planning. Naturally, when he awakes from his winter sleep his bear pantry is bare and because of his shabby musician appearance, he has no luck begging for spare change from the bourgeois bears of the town. Driven by hunger, he impulsively burgles a sweet shop window and consumes everything in sight, which makes him a bear on the run.

The mouse Celestine is a dreamer in her own way, but she’s as assertive as she is idealistic. Her troubles begin when her studies don’t go well. It seems that mice have an underground industry in dentistry! After all, what’s a mouse to do if he or she loses a few incisors? Starve to death? Nope. You go to a dentist’s office for an implant and it’s the job of trainees such as Celestine to secure a supply of replacement teeth. As fortune would have it, castoff bear teeth are the gold standard, as they can be whittled down to make lots of mouse incisors. This, of course, means mice must make risky journeys above ground—a trip that could lead to death by stomping or chomping.

You pretty much know the rest. Through a set of bizarre circumstances Ernest and Celestine are thrown together in an animated riff on It Happened One Night. They eventually become good friends, and find themselves outcasts in their respective worlds (both of which are imaginative and visually appealing). More wacky circumstances lead to direct engagements between the two worlds and confrontations with illogic, bigotry, and rigidity. There will be a happy ending.

If all of this sounds gag-me sweet to you, I can assure you that I shared those reservations. Me? Watch a children’s cartoon made in France? Quelle horreur! Yet I found cynicism impossible to sustain amidst this film’s charms. Ernest is simply a lovable goof and Celestine is an Everywoman underdog. (Okay, undermouse.) Go ahead. Raise your cynical hackles. At some point in this film you’ll find yourself saying, “Awww….” To be sure, it’s a kids’ moral lesson about the value of friendship and the dangers of preconceived prejudice, but the animation, jibes, and spirit of this film will also appeal to discerning adults.
The English-language release of this film features Forest Whitaker’s tone-perfect exclamations for Ernest, as well as cameo voice work from luminaries such as Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, and Jeffrey Wright. Give it a try and be prepared to be awwwwed. 
Rob Weir


New April Verch Mines Early Old-Timey Recording Industry

The Newpart
No Depression Music
* * *

The title track of April Verch's new album—her tenth–refers to the family room her parents added in the 1970s, a place where she played music with her father, honed her fiddle skills, danced, and held house parties. It, and a few other tunes such as "Belle Election," are rooted in the rural traditions of the Ontario countryside where she grew up, but this album's true "new part" is that most of the material is more Tin Pan Alley, Appalachian, and Austin than Ottawa Valley. Verch band mates Hayes Griffin (guitar) and Cody Walters (banjo/acoustic bass) have mined early- and mid-20th century American music for an album that places Griffin's flat-picking on equal par with Verch's fiddling, vocals, and step dancing. Inevitably, a female traditional fiddler who bows less and sings more is going to draw comparisons to Alison Krauss. Fear not; this collection is more Bob Wills than Alison Krauss. That is to say, it's swingier and its tunes are as open as the prairies, though Verch opts for a spare feel rather than the slickness of either Krauss or Wills. For example, she takes a 1925 song, "If You Hadn't Gone Away," and reworks in waltz time to give it a simple, but brighter feel. Texan jazz pianist Seger Ellis popularized another from the same period, "Montana Call," but Verch's controlled theatrical take makes it sound like Cole Porter gone cowboy. She even swings a gospel song, "Dry Bones," and slows and quiets "Cruel Willie," a tune much favored by fretted instrument players, so that Walters' banjo sounds straight out of Stephen Foster. The overall feel is so thoroughly retro her usual material, a Swedish polksa, and step dance interludes seem more out of place more than change of pace. In a similar vein, as much as I thrill to watch Ms. Verch dance in her live shows, recorded solo percussive feet often lack the intended dramatic impact. In my view, this is a good record, but not a great one. Her love of these old songs and tunes is laudable, but I suspect I'm not alone among longtime April Verch fans in longing for more from her traditions than a trip through the early recording industry. Rob Weir